Dance Theatre of Harlem at
Jacob’s Pillow

Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) is both an old and a new company. DTH was founded by former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Arthur Mitchell in 1969 after the assignation of Dr. Martin Luther King. The company had financial problems in 2004 and stopped touring, with the pause intended to last only a few months; however, given the recession, the performance drought lasted eight years. The company is back performing with a slimmed down company consisting of 18 dancers, led by Artistic Director Virginia Johnson, who has been with the company for nearly 30 years. From my several viewings of the company this year, she has been successful in assembling a fine cast of dancers showing off their talents with an innovative and interesting repertory.

I reviewed a DTH performance in New York last April and saw the company at Jacob’s Pillow Saturday evening (more on why I was there in my next post). On the bill Saturday evening was three works, 2½ were contemporary works and the other ½ was ballet theater.

The first work was Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, Odes to Love and Loss choreographed by Ulysses Dove in 1993 set to string orchestra and bell music by Arvo Pärt. According to the program notes, Dove choreographed the piece after he lost 13 close friends and relatives, among them his father. He says: “I want to tell an experience in movement, a story without words, and create a poetic monument over people I loved.”

As the curtain opens, dancers are on stage in white unitards (angels?) to somber music. Couples appear in duets and use ballet steps as their form of expression. A recurring step is a fouetté pirouette sequence that men and women perform. Da’Von Doane stands out with his powerful physique that reminds me of former ABT Principal Dancer José Manuel Carreño. In one segment, three females dance in a triangle with a series of steps that emphasize plies in a deep second position. I’m not sure what these steps have to do with heaven, but it is entertaining to watch. In the final segment, the three male and female dancers were on stage dancing one at a time with short solos. After all are finished, the dancers walk around the stage as if searching for a lost soul as the curtain falls.

past-carry-forward (2013), choreographed by Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis, focuses on the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the industrial North in the early part of the 20th century. The first half of the piece showcases the “dance theater” aspect of DTH quite well. The piece begins with a large photograph of a family illuminated on the back of the stage (from the post-performance discussion in April, the undated photo portrays a family from the South moving to Chicago). On stage there is a man and woman with suitcases with sounds of a train. The two, highlighted by dramatic lighting by Peter Jakubowski and Peter D. Leonard, are tense as they contemplate their future in an unfamiliar Northern city.

The couple is more confident in the next scene, which is filled with festive 1920s jazz music in a scene presumably representing Harlem. Along with dramatic ballet theater, the jazz and modern dancing is a strong suit for the company as the men ripped off rapid-fire pirouettes and light as air leaps. The next segment shows men going off to war, saying goodbye to their wives/girlfriends. As in most wars, the men are overconfident regarding what lies ahead while their loved ones are appropriately filled with dread. Here again the dancing is impressive.

As a train porter (not sure who it was, but I enjoyed his performance) draws an imaginary curtain to separate the past from the present, the piece takes a major turn from a narrative ballet to an abstract work. The last segment is a letdown after the nice narrative part; I found this part unfocused and not particularly memorable. There is a lot of movement without a purpose. Although it picks up at the end with substantial fluidity of movement, it is not enough to save the second half of the piece.

Contested Space (2012) by Donald Byrd is an entertaining work similar to Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (complete with dry ice fog) with fast paced action for five couples and a lead male (Anthony Savoy). The work is an exploration of contemporary couplings and relationships set to modern techno-pop music (Amon Tobin) that Mike Myer’s Saturday Night Live character Dieter probably listens to in German discos. The music was brisk and loud; sleepy audience members were certainly awake at the end of this rousing piece.

The piece mainly consists of duets focusing on the more cynical and manipulative aspects of relationships. No Romeo and Juliet with a soothing Prokofiev score here as the men contort the women to their desires against throbbing music. Sometimes the relationships get out of hand and the women take a swipe (that misses) at their controlling partners. Chyrstyn Fentroy and Nayara Lopes strutted around the stage with smirks as if to say “who do these guys think they are?”

Chyrstyn and Dylan Santos had an interesting duet consisting of contorted movements and an angel lift (he supports her overhead holding her hips as they form a “T”) ending in a twisting fish dive. I also liked Anthony Savoy, who was the only dancer without a partner providing solo work. He had an interesting backbend to a back flop, with no arms for support.

The piece presents a distorted and manipulative view of 21st century relationships and I enjoyed the dancing. Aside from a few off-kilter leaps by some of the men, it was technically well danced.